Living the rancher life
Western-educated, real-life cowboy innovates camp experience at Texas Longhorn Ranch
By Debora Van Brenk, BA’86, MA’87
Photo by Frank Neufeld
Fred Cahill’s morning begins before sunrise when he dons his cowboy hat and boots, gulps two mugs of coffee and heads out to feed the horses.
Heads bob to greet him: A palomino with braids in her mane. Two shaggy miniature donkeys named Daisy and Dolly. A dun-coloured mare, a couple of glistening chestnuts with liquid-brown eyes. And Blue, Cahill’s favourite, a muscled roan whose forward ears and swishing tail pronounce her eager to start the day.
Blue works hard and gets along with everybody, Cahill says. Versatile, dependable, sensible, affable. Not flashy, but always finishes a job she starts.
Those same virtues might well apply to Cahill.
This is Cahill’s life as a modern cowboy and operator of Texas Longhorn Ranch, and it’s a good one. “It’s not a nine-to-five job – more a five-to-nine job – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Cowboys and campers
Cahill, BA’81 (Economics), figures he was born to this life, growing up in the countryside 45 minutes west of London in the hamlet of Kerwood, where the ranch stands today.
“I’m lucky I had good parents: Grant and Betty Cahill,” he says. “They were just really there as parents and they developed a work ethic in all of us.”
When Cahill was a kid, he would beg to stay up past his regular bedtime on Sunday nights to catch the TV western, Bonanza.
He practised cattle-roping skills on anything that moved, and on a lot of things that didn’t.
He loved dawn, when the pasture sparkled with dew. He loved the feeling of a horse under his saddle, the smell of the first cut of hay, the rugged beauty of cattle with horns that stretched as wide as a ranch hand is tall.
But he realized as a teenager, if he intended to make ranching his livelihood as well as his life, he had to attend university.
“You figure out what you love to do – and then you figure out how to make a living at it,” he says.
“I attended Western because I knew I needed an education. I don’t know what possessed me to go there. Nobody in my family had ever gone.
“I worked my butt off at it. I had to work hard, study hard. It was tough. I’m 62 years old and sometimes I still have nightmares about exams. But I know I wouldn’t be here today if not for that education.”
One of his course assignments was creating a business plan for a kids’ summer camp. That project was the academic test of his post-graduate ambition.
He and his family leased (and later purchased) conservation area lands beside the home farm.
They moved barns from across the county, cleared riding trails along the Sydenham River, planted a stand of white pines, shored up endless fence lines and grew their herd of Texas longhorn cattle. They piped water to the cavernous pool, from the oxbow pond that nature had shaped into a giant horseshoe.
Soon, the Texas Longhorn Ranch kids’ camp was up and running – and galloping.
The kids bunked in covered wagons that filled as quickly as they could be built.
Cahill estimates something like 20,000 children went through the place in the summer camp’s 18 years.
He credits some of its early popularity to timing: In the early 1990s, City Slickers, a fish-out-of-water comedy about the exploits of New York friends who find themselves on a cattle drive, hit movie theatres. Then came line dancing and country singer Shania Twain.
But the ranch’s enduring appeal has always been more elemental than faddish, he says.
When you introduce kids to horses, cattle, ranch chores, roping and campfires, you instill in them honesty, empathy, work ethic, a sense of their infinite potential in the great big world.
Cahill is big on pragmatic positivity as a tool that can even any odds: “You don’t say, ‘I can’t.’ Life has to be about, ‘I can.’ It’s all about attitude.”
Gail, his wife of 34 years and partner in their ventures – and who Cahill still calls “this bride of mine” – picks up the story here:
“So many campers came back year after year and if you asked, ‘How are you today?’ they knew to say, ‘Just great!’ By the end of the week, every camper would shout it out, ‘Just great!’ and they’d believe it too,” Gail says.
“That’s going on Fred’s gravestone: ‘It’s all about attitude.’”
Parents began dropping hints they craved the kind of rural retreat their children enjoyed so much.
It was Gail who suggested glamour camping, ‘glamping’, as a natural evolution. Not a dude ranch and most definitely not a country spa – but something in between.
The Cahills converted covered wagons to upscale lodgings for two. Crisp linens on the beds, a fresh-brewed coffee in the morning before a home-cooked breakfast, and a trail ride or a dip in the pool. Inky sky and bright stars above a campfire’s crackle.
No agendas, no deadlines. No suits, no uniforms.
A lot of guests work as first responders, says Gail. “This is a place for their mental well-being. After all they do and all they’ve experienced, our ranch and our horses are their therapy.
“They go back to real life and they feel they’ve recharged their batteries.”
Busyness abounds on the working farm but it also exudes the unflappable, genial hospitality of its owners.
Virtually everyone employed at the ranch, including some Western students and alumni, first arrived as kid campers.
“We’re in the people business. We have to be good listeners,” Cahill emphasizes. “It’s not just about getting stuff done and being productive, so we make sure everybody who works here knows, ‘If anyone comes near you, stand up, shake their hand, look them in the eye and listen to their story.’”
Cahill is the first to say he’s had a lot of help: from the welcoming folks in the Texas longhorn cattle community; the tourism office of Middlesex County; the St. Clair Conservation Authority; and countless family, friends and ranch guests along the way.
Their children and grandchildren share an equally boundless love for the ranch.
Oldest and youngest sons, Stewart and Coulter, manage the livestock operation and excel in roping competitions. (“They’re the best ropers in the country, actually – and they’re just good cattlemen,” Cahill notes with pride.)
Their middle son Greg is chief ambassador and keeps track of daily details large and small.
And Cahill keeps riding, anywhere and everywhere except into the sunset.
There’s fencing to mend, cattle to tend, a thousand other tasks needing doing but [to him] barely worth mentioning.
He wheels Blue with the merest nudge of his cowboy boot, as man and horse round the cattle into a tight clutch near the treeline.
“If you’ve never experienced working cattle on horseback, it doesn’t get any better than that.
“It’s hard work and it’s fun. You’re not going to get rich, but it’s a really rewarding way to live.